DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
Self-Control by Stig Sæterbakken (trans. Seán Kinsella). Dalkey Archive Pres, 154pp, $13.50
Siamese by Stig Sæterbakken (trans. Stokes Schwartz). Dalkey Archive Press, 164pp., $13.95.
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins
—W.B. Yeats, “Byzantium”
Stillness, silence, is art taken to its most extreme consequence.
—Stig Sæterbakken, “Why I always listen to such sad music” (trans. Stokes Schwartz)
Definitive readings tend to gather around great artists’ work in the form of a common language widely used to describe their life and their art. This is mainly a result of laziness, a matter of convenience, and it comes with troubling consequences. When we limit the language we use to discuss art, we stifle our ability to more deeply appreciate that art. In Norway, a certain set of words outline the legacy of Stig Sæterbakken (he was a “provocateur” and a “transgressor”) as well as his literary works (they are “strange,” “dark,” “grotesque,” and “controversial”) and now, as his literature finds its way into English, we already see these same words appearing in English criticism—along with, inevitably, “Norwegian,” a particularly troublesome descriptive, since Sæterbakken did not identify himself or his writing with his home country.
“Norwegian” aside for a moment, Sæterbakken’s work could indeed be described as all of the above. These terms, in a way, are all perfectly apt: Sæterbakken is transgressive. He does provoke. And his writing is uniquely strange and grotesque. But Sæterbakken is these things because he and his writing challenges, out of curiosity, rage, and love, our individual and collective sensibilities and assumptions. Thus, there is a sensational dimension to these words that is false and that threatens to obscure the artistic merit and complexity of his work. It is necessary to begin assembling a more complete understanding of him in order to discover an effective way of reading his literature.
Siamese, Sæterbakken’s third novel and first to appear in English, records the final days of Edwin Mortens, a near-blind retiree who has confined himself to a rocking chair in his bathroom, willfully resigning his body to rapid decomposition as part of an effort to achieve intellectual purity before death. His attempt to liberate mind from body begins to falter when his building’s super arrives to change a lightbulb in his bathroom. Two things happen during this visit: Edwin asks the super to kill him, and he begins to believe that his wife, Erna, who is almost deaf, harbors feelings for the “horny fucker.” His assisted suicide request is denied and, carefully nursing his outrage and paranoia, Edwin initiates a vicious exchange between husband and wife in which the depth of suffering and loneliness in each is brought, little by little, into stark relief.
Siamese is narrated alternatively by Edwin and Erna—the “twins.” Edwin, though aware that he is completely dependent upon Erna for food, drink, and aid with his catheter, seems to hold absolute power in the relationship, though it is Erna who faces the choice of whether to keep her abusive husband alive, terribly aware of the isolation that awaits her after his death. Erna thinks:
He’s a monster. That’s what he is, a monster. You can see it in the things he enjoys. Like an animal. Like a beast of prey. Torturing its kill before devouring it. A cunning and dangerous creature. He enjoys making me suffer, making me unsure of how to deal with him. He knows that once I start worrying about him, he never leaves my thoughts. My fear grows out of my conscience. And Edwin wants all of me.
The novel’s intensely graphic, tactile language keeps the reader highly attuned to momentary shifts in the apartment’s stifled atmosphere. The focus here is microscopic. Sæterbakken refuses to summarize; the twins’ mental workings, as well as their bodily movements, their physical and emotional anguish, are set before us in grimly obsessive fullness. The power of Sæterbakken writing comes in part from the totality of his attentiveness. His precise orchestration of a torrent of details allows the reader to experience the novel in a sort of neurotic frenzy, in which every footstep, fart, and verbal utterance is a personal affront, saturated with meaning and contempt. Even the absence of noise and motion bears this frightful weight. Indeed, the novel sinks deeper into oppressive silence as it progresses. “Silence is Sweetie’s revenge,” Edwin muses, “she can dump me into it whenever she likes, it’s like being under a surgeon’s lamp, it makes it impossible for me to avoid hearing my own thoughts . . .”
We come to understand Edwin and Erna’s marriage as a sort of natural phenomenon. Fostering a centripetal force not so alien to relationships in our own lives, their private despondence maintains the bond between them even as resentment and fear of one another grow. Their lives spiral ever-inward, at once into deeper depths of alienation and, paradoxically, into a more desperate need of the another. This is the form love has taken for the twins, and Sæterbakken does not allow us to dismiss it as extreme or unbelievable. In fact, it is terribly familiar.
Self-Control, Sæterbakken’s follow-up to Siamese, centers around Andreas Feldt, a middle-aged man who, filled with an intense and unknowable sense of desperation, is driven to test the validity of his existence and its influence on others around him. The novel opens with Feldt sharing a meal with one of his two estranged daughters. During this encounter, without “the slightest notion of an appropriate thing to say,” Feldt inexplicably claims that he is divorcing his wife. This lie seemingly has no effect upon the daughter, but it has a profound impact on Andreas. Confused and disoriented by his own lie, as well as by his daughter’s indifference to the news, Feldt wanders back out into the world, engaging in a series of encounters with acquaintances, family members, and strangers in which he aggressively tries to exercise influence, if not control, over the lives of others—and over his own life.
At the heart of Self-Control is Feldt’s pervasive repression. We never learn precisely what he is repressing, but its traumatic nature is betrayed by his preoccupation with a missing girl whose disappearance is continually mentioned in the headlines. Feldt clearly identifies with her disappearance—perhaps with her invisibility, perhaps merely with the tragedy of her likely fate—and in fact it is the only conduit through which he seems able to experience his world. Toward everything else he is stubbornly reticent.
Feldt’s outbursts, then, are unpredictable, violent and ultimately impotent, serving only to make him increasingly aware of his own powerlessness. There are only two options Feldt seems to recognize: he can either fully identify with intolerable despair, the cause of which he refuses to locate, or he can resign himself to invisibility. The novel’s big reveal—the only piece of information that matters, in a way, to the novel and its narrator—is withheld until its final words, but the revelation does not provide clarity or resolution; quite to the contrary, the book’s ending complicates Feldt’s choice, along with all that we have come to understand about him.
In stylistic counterpoint to Siamese, the prose in Self-Control is intentionally flat, featureless. The novel is essentially unquotable, its slow narrative an often painfully meticulous depiction of the very smallest operations of Feldt’s consciousness, most of which he’s unwilling to acknowledge, and of the suffering he experiences in avoiding pain. Like a Cassavetes film, Self-Control unfolds scene by scene with characters trying desperately to express forces inside them that they cannot account for, or, in Feldt’s case, even acknowledge. Sæterbakken’s ambiguous characters change with every page; they refuse easy patterns of behavior that would make them too recognizable, too untrue. They are often repugnant, but Sæterbakken saw such honesty as part of the duty of art and literature. In one of his remarkably incisive essays, he writes:
A novel—a good novel that is—can make the thoughts, the moral and emotional universe of, say, a pædophile or a Nazi understandable, can make it possible for us to identify ourselves with it, bring us to a point of recognizing this as an option in ourselves as well. Because we are human. And being human means containing this too as an option. The question, Who are we? is rejected in favour of the question, What is it possible for us to become?
Sæterbakken believes in literature as a destructive force, one that is inextricably tied to identity and should be used by both author and reader for private self-reflection and renovation. Uninterested in impressing his personal opinions and morality on his audience, Sæterbakken refuses to judge his characters, choosing instead to force the reader to suspend his own sense of self and fully identify, even if for only a moment, with the distasteful or otherwise upsetting nature of what is being depicted. While under Sæterbakken’s influence, the reader becomes, in the Rimbaudian sense, another.
In another essay, Sæterbakken writes, “We are never fully and completely ourselves because our lacks, our weaknesses, and our fears make up an essential dimension within us.” As evidenced in Andreas Feldt, Sæterbakken believes that our wounds are essential to who we are, as individuals and as a collective, and should not be avoided, or even healed; in fact, they are often meant to stay open so we can remain sensitive to our surroundings. “Melancholia satisfies us by preventing us from reaching satisfaction,” he writes, “it calms us by keeping our anxiety alive, it gives us peace by prolonging the state of emergency that answers to the name Humankind.” For Sæterbakken, even art cannot offer salvation or fulfillment. On the contrary, it reminds us “of the nothingness we know awaits us,” but in this reminder of absolute denial of life we find confirmation of our existence. If we cannot experience the silence of death, which is without music, literature, or sensation, in life, then we must seek out and experience art which draws attention to the paradox of existing as a being incapable of becoming fully aware of itself and its potential. This is the art Sæterbakken offers us.
Anxiety and influence
Stig Sæterbakken received international attention in 2008 while serving as the Artistic Director of the Norwegian Festival of Literature after he invited David Irving, a revisionist historian and Holocaust denier, to speak at the 2009 Festival. The invitation ignited an immediate firestorm and aligned the Norwegian literary establishment—and the general public—against Sæterbakken, who resigned his position in disgust, calling the Norwegian literati “fucking cowards” for their hypocrisy in claiming to uphold above all else free and open expression while being unwilling to acknowledge certain unfavorable opinions.
The Irving invitation was largely seen as a stunt meant to inflame and aggravate. Indeed, in the obituaries published in Norway, Sæterbakken’s life and writing was often neatly reported to be an attempt to counter contemporary conformity, to merely provoke the culture from its homogeny. The Irving event continues to be sensationalized, when in fact it was an act completely in keeping with what Sæterbakken saw as the radical responsibility of art.
In his second novel, The New Testament, which is not yet available in English, Sæterbakken’s narrator is obsessed with discovering Hitler’s diaries. His purpose in writing the novel was to draw attention to the Western historical interpretation of the Holocaust, to point out the arrogant moral superiority inherent in our interpretation of Nazism as “pure evil.” Sæterbakken insisted that we summon the courage to refrain from moralizing when studying history and instead explore the past with curiosity and humility. But he understood that this is not possible, that collectively “we cannot see evil because the day we do, we will have blood on our hands.” The New Testament was largely panned by Norwegian critics, its merits largely obscured by the notion that it was a novel contrived merely to be shocking and sensational.
Sæterbakken did not fully identify himself as a Norwegian—not as an individual nor as a writer. “My forefathers are Kafka, Beckett, and Céline,” he writes. “I like my European identity, because it takes away some of my Norwegian identity and replaces it with nothing. Because Europe is, strictly speaking, nothing. Europe is a fiction. Europe is a literary construct, held together by novels and poems, more than by nations and governments.” For Sæterbakken, “nothingness” is an essential aspect of identity, since nothing is a radical element, subject to be replaced by anything, by the possibility of anything, at any time. This idea of remaining forever incomplete and never quite knowable is the spring from which Sæterbakken’s art emerges and it is what permitted him to write without restraint, without so much as an acknowledgement of exterior codes or morality.
Sæterbakken indeed shares a good deal of Céline’s genetic code, so to speak. Like Céline, Sæterbakken takes it as axiomatic that life, taken as a whole, is, in Andreas Feldt’s words, “only terrible facts—terrible, because they are so haphazard,” that not only is one’s life just a false step away from careening into utter obscurity or invisibility, but that this fate may be unavoidable. Yet, for all of its grim depiction of the unfavorable aspects of love and life, Sæterbakken demands that we apply his radical approach of free expression to his literature and allow ourselves to remain open to the discomfort and alienation his writing may inspire—and open to the pleasure of self-discovery, even if it is an unfavorable discovery. That is, he demands a humanistic reading, since by setting before us the “dark,” the “grotesque,” the “strange,” and a graphic experience of these unavoidable aspects of existence, his literature helps us acquire an acceptance of life, such as it is. As Robert Faurisson writes of great literature—and of Céline’s work in particular—“it should not appeal only to man’s heart, intelligence, love of truth, but to the whole man.”
Sæterbakken strives to depict the totality of identity, of all the possibilities of self and of what we might become, free of imposed boundaries and artificial limitations. If we approach his literature with this in mind, he can no longer be so easily categorized as a “transgressor,” since there are no lines for him to cross. If we recognize his commitment to challenging his own beliefs as intensely as he challenges our collective beliefs, his work discredits the popular critical consensus of him as a provocateur. And if we accept the virtues of free expression without reservation, controversy ceases to be an option and the complexities of living humanely appear.
To our great benefit, it appears that Anglophone readers have yet to experience the best of Sæterbakken’s work. Through the Night, his last and “most sinister and also perhaps his most beautiful novel,” according to his Swedish publisher, Carl-Michæl Edenborg, is set for release in English in 2013.
Taylor Davis-Van Atta is the founder and editor of Music & Literature Magazine.
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